A Long and Winding Row / Financial Times

June 2017 


One early summer's evening my wife, Katy, and I visited an upright stone in a lush green meadow near the Cotswold village of Kemble in Gloucestershire. The stone marks the source of the Thames. Next to it, a wooden sign points the way to the Thames Barrier, 184 circuitous miles away. It was to that barrier, on the far side of London, that we were planning to kayak – one man and a woman in a tiny plastic shell, keen for adventure and anxious to escape Britain's unedifying general election. Unfortunately the hole from which England's longest river is supposed to emerge was bone dry. There was not a drop of water in sight – not at this time of year.


The next morning we departed instead from Lechlade, the point at which the Thames officially becomes navigable, though it is still narrow enough to chuck a stone across with ease. Over the next seven days we would glide along that ancient artery through seven counties, 46 locks and 130 bridges - some dating back to the 13th century, past Iron Age forts, Roman ruins, palaces, castles, abbeys and rustic cabins, and deep into the history and culture of this land. We would see the gentlest, happiest and most picturesque face of England, and but for a harrowing last few hours we were utterly enchanted.


That first day was pure Wind in the Willows. We paddled 22 miles along a ribbon of placid water flanked by cow pastures and water meadows, willows and poplars, rushes, dog roses and clumps of yellow irises. We nosed aside swans and cygnets, ducks and ducklings, geese and goslings. Red kites circled high overhead, terns swooped low over the river, and herons stood motionless on the banks. It seemed like an England of childhood memory – almost a foreign country.


We passed scarcely a village. Except for a few gaily-painted barges and a tiny coal-powered steam boat that was someone's eccentric hobby, we had the river largely to ourselves. We exchanged cheery greetings with anyone we did pass. We chatted to the lock keepers as they opened their sluices and gates by hand, and admired their neat cottages and immaculate gardens. Some of those locks date back to the 18th century, and the lock keepers' jobs seem scarcely to have changed since then.


The river appears equally unchanged – apart, bizarrely, from several dozen concrete pillboxes built along its northern banks during World War Two to counter a putative Nazi invasion of southern England. It operates on geological, not human, time. It has no discernible current to rush you on. It has none of the speed or aggression of British roads. It is inherently, irresistibly relaxing.


Even prices seem stuck in the past. Arms aching, we moored for that first night by an old stone toll bridge at Eynsham. The charge was 5p for cars, 12p for buses.


The next day – a Sunday - began in similar vein. River dwellers sleep in, so for a couple of serene hours we had the water to ourselves. Around us all the birds of Oxfordshire were singing, or so it seemed. The sound of church bells carried across the fields. But as the dreamy spires - and cranes - of Oxford appeared on the skyline the river's personality subtly changed. It became less bucolic, more a place of recreation; less Kenneth Grahame, more Jerome K. Jerome.


Hikers, cyclists and dog walkers appeared on the banks. A few hardy souls were swimming. Lovers canoodled on the grass. Lunchers filled sunny pub gardens. Rowers and punters, skiffs and pleasure craft, took to the water. Eights Week had just finished, but we chuckled at a sign the women rowers of Lady Margaret Hall had hung from their boathouse: 'Give us their cox!'


And so our voyage continued. We passed through towns and villages – Abingdon, Shillingford, Benson, Wallingford, Goring, Marlow – with charming old waterfronts. The meadows metamorphosed into the Chiltern Hills. The river widened imperceptibly. Islands appeared. The motor launches grew larger and grander. Hand-operated locks gave way to electric ones, but were still pleasant places to rest and chat.


One lock keeper told us how Poles had poached all the pike from his weir, another how the annual lock keepers' gardening competition had fallen prey to skulduggery. Near Reading we were mystified to see a red letter box, replete with collection times, halfway up a wall that rose perpendicularly from the river. Who used it? Who emptied it? The next lock keeper told us a practical joker had stuck it there – a Banksy of the Thames.


We stopped each night at charming riverside hostelries like the Plough Inn at Long Wittenham or the Weir View guest house at Pangbourne. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner at the Queen's Head, an old pub down a back lane in Little Marlow that we shared with the village cricket team. Lunches were mostly picnics on the grassy banks, but during a heavy shower one day we put in at the swanky Beetle and Wedge Boathouse in Moulsford. Our fellow diners watched bemused as we moored, entered the restaurant in wet T-shirts and shorts, sat at a table covered in pristine white linen, and devoured a splendid lunch of scallops, pan fried rump of lamb, and white chocolate mousse with dark chocolate brownies and ice cream.


At Mapledurham we passed a colourful dog show on a meadow next to the last working watermill on the Thames. At Henley marquees and grandstands were being erected for this year's regatta. The course was already laid out, so we propelled ourselves down it to the deafening cheers of non-existent crowds.


By now we felt we were paddling through the pages of Country Life. The pastures had mutated into manicured parkland. Mansions with stunning gardens and splendid boathouses lined the banks. We had coffee in the orangery of the finest, Cliveden House, where the call girl Christine Keeler first caught the eye of War Minister John Profumo and triggered the greatest political scandal of the 1960s.


That afternoon we passed Eton College, Windsor Castle and Runnymede where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215. He thereby established those fundamental rights of the common man of which the Thames is a shining example. It is a truly democratic river. It belongs equally to everyone. We saw scarcely a fence along its banks. Rustic huts and slightly hippyish houseboats jostle with country piles, and even the richest estates are dissected by public footpaths.


We spent the night at the modern but friendly Runneymede-on-Thames hotel, whose porters rather grandly conveyed our canoe inside as two dragon boats raced up the river in some corporate bonding event. The next morning we passed beneath the M25, through Staines, and into a pleasant suburbia where the good folk of Chertsey, Weybridge and East Molesey enjoy their own thin slices of riverfront.


It was a baking day. They mowed their lawns, sunbathed on their terraces, messed around in their boats. Mothers pushed prams along the towpaths. Teenagers jumped into the river from bridges, and at Sunbury Park I also swam. The water was surprisingly clean. Indeed the locks here all have salmon ladders, though I found no-one who had actually seen a salmon.


That evening we stopped at the White Hart in Hampton Wick. Motorists watched with amusement as the pub's Polish chef, Arek, helped me carry the canoe over the zebra crossing on the High Street to its car park. Katy and I then strolled in the gorgeous parkland surrounding Hampton Court Palace which is where, nearly 40 years ago, our friendship first developed into something deeper.


Our last day took us through the heart of London. It was supposed to be the climax of the trip and so it proved - but not quite in the way we anticipated.


At 9.30am we passed through the final lock at Teddington, beyond which the Thames becomes tidal. At 10.00am that tide began to carry us downriver – a luxurious feeling after 124 miles of still water. Soon we were gliding through Twickenham and Richmond, past Syon Park and Kew Gardens, and down the Oxford and Cambridge boat race course to Putney.


We swept on past Fulham's football ground, Battersea power station and the countless new apartment blocks of a city now embracing a river that was a biologically dead sewer scarcely 50 years ago. We saw the Chelsea flower show being dismantled. We admired the Tate Gallery, Lambeth Palace, the Palace of Westminster, Big Ben, the famous bridges and celebrated views of Canaletto, Turner and Wordsworth. On left and right the capital's landmarks loomed - the National Theatre, the London Eye, the Shard, the Globe, the Tower of London, St Paul's Cathedral and the gleaming skyscrapers of the City.


The river here bears no resemblance to the tranquil, pastoral Thames of Gloucestershire. It is broad, powerful, turbulent, noisy and frenetic. We are buffeted by the wakes of huge tourist boats and river taxis. We pass HMS Belfast - a tiny red speck at its base. We paddle through Tower Bridge (which inexplicably fails to raise its drawbridge for us) into the relatively calm waters beyond, but our relief is short lived. Black clouds are gathering, the tide is turning, and the Thames Barrier is still eight miles away.


We paddle harder, past the old docks and converted warehouses of Wapping and Rotherhithe, towards Canary Wharf. As we reach the Royal Naval College at Greenwich a mighty thunderstorm erupts overhead. We are drenched within minutes. We consider stopping, but there is nowhere to shelter and we would freeze if we did.


Thirty minutes later we pass Canary Wharf a second time, the river having carried us in a giant loop. By now the rain is so heavy that the tops of its great glass towers are invisible. We go slower and slower as the incoming tide gains strength. We inch past the O2 arena, where the cable car across the river has wisely suspended operations. Jets of filthy water spew from drainage pipes.


At last we spot the Thames barrier looming through the murk. We battle towards it, stroke by stroke. A hundred yards. Fifty yards. Eventually we get there, but we feel no exhilaration for our journey is still not over. Our final destination, Gallions Point Marina, is another mile away.


We push on, exhausted, past scenes of industrial dereliction on the shore and half sunken vessels in the water – the last vestiges of the old Thames. A tug boat pulling two great barges loaded with cargo containers chugs past us. At the Woolwich ferry we have to cross from the right bank to the left, and are carried back 50 yards.


Finally, in the distance, we see the lone figure of Axele Molloy, the marina's manager, standing like some guardian angel on a Dickensian wooden jetty. He waves, urges us on, guides us in to the lock at the entrance to the old Royal Docks. Minutes later we're standing before a heater in Axele's office, stripping off our sodden clothes, drinking hot sweet tea brewed by his friend Emma Walton.


Seldom have we been so glad to finish a trip - or so sad that it was over.